When BYU made the decision to break away from the Mountain West and become an independent last August, the immediate reaction was disapproval and disbelief.
First, the disapproval:
“Who does BYU think it is?” many people said. “Do the Cougars think they’re Notre Dame?”
Then, the disbelief:
“How will they put together a schedule? How will they position themselves for a BCS berth? And what, exactly, makes BYU attractive to television networks, especially one like ESPN?” (BYU reached a TV agreement with the Worldwide Leader through the 2018 season.)
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has heard from observers who applaud the decision and he’s heard from those who think it was an imbecilic move on the part of a program who could have been in a BCS conference within a few short years had the MWC continued to grow.
But Mendenhall doesn’t much care about outsider opinions, he says, because he believes it was a good move for the long-term success of the Cougars’ football program.
“We didn’t go independent to be safe,” Mendenhall told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We went independent to move the program into a new era.”
It was an unconventional move, but a bold one nonetheless.
The question now is this: Will the Cougars be up for it?
Mendenhall took over at BYU in 2005, inheriting a program that had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons. But he promised a turnaround and then delivered it sooner than anybody could have reasonably expected.
After posting a 6-6 record in his first season, Mendenhall then rattled off four straight 10-win seasons from 2006 through 2009 and finished 11-2 three times. During that stretch, the Cougars appeared in four bowl games and won three of them, including the 2009 Las Vegas Bowl against 16th-ranked Oregon State as 2-point underdogs.
However, Mendenhall’s Cougars went just 7-6 in 2010 after some early-season struggles, and now his program is making the transition to independence, which has been tougher than expected. Mendenhall said earlier in the offseason that he spent more time working on scheduling in May and June than he did in the previous six years combined.
Whether or not that will affect BYU’s preparation remains to be seen, but it was clearly an unwanted distraction for a team that wants to keep its focus on the football field as it prepares to do battle in uncertain territory.
If BYU can survive the early part of its schedule, it should have no trouble grinding out an 8, 9 or 10-win season. But if the Cougars stumble in September, it could be a tough road ahead.
The Cougars will play road games at Ole Miss and Texas to open the season. They’ll be a pick ‘em by kickoff against the Rebels and for now are 6-point dogs against the Longhorns. Splitting those two games would be a great start for the Cougars, considering an 0-2 start seems far more likely than a 2-0 start, which is concerning.
Because from Week 3 on, the schedule difficulty only intensifies. BYU will play Utah in the “Holy War” on Sept. 17 and will then play consecutive Friday night games against UCF and Utah State. The month of October features road games against Oregon State and TCU, and while a WAC-heavy schedule will help soften the blow over the final stretch, a tough trip to Hawaii in the finale still awaits.
AGAINST THE SPREAD
BYU has covered an impressive 57% of its games as a favorite over the last five years and holds a 16-12 ATS record as a home favorite. However, as an underdog, the Cougars have struggled and are just 5-7-1 ATS, including a 3-3 record in 2010.
Here’s a look at BYU’s ATS trends since 2006:
As a favorite: 25-19
As an underdog: 5-7-1
At home: 16-12
On the road: 14-14-1
Off a loss: 7-7
THE PUNDITS PROJECTIONS
Here’s what the national college football magazines are saying about BYU:
Lindy’s Sports: Lindy’s Ranks the Cougars 40th in the country and says they must take advantage of a front-loaded schedule if they hope to be elite in 2011. “If the Cougars can start strong against Ole Miss, Texas and Utah, they will be back in familiar Top 25 territory,” Lindy’s writes. Potential problems? “Injuries on defense last season to key players such as Jordan Pendleton and DT Romney Fuga contributed to some big holes. They need to come back strong.”
Phil Steele: Steele has the Cougars listed 27th in his preseason power poll and notes that the offense will have to improve upon last year’s poor early-season showing. Had the Cougars remained in the Mountain West, Steele thinks they would have been a preseason favorite. Nonetheless, he writes, “I give BYU a great shot at double digit wins despite playing Ole Miss, Texas, Oregon State, TCU and Hawaii all away from home. BYU is much improved over last year’s version.”
Athlon Sports: BYU is ranked 34th overall by Athlon, who predicts an 8-4 record for the Cougars in 2011. “The offense should be more settled and confident from the start with Jake Heaps established as the quarterback, but the unit must prove itself against good competition,” Athlon writes. While there are some question marks for the Cougars offensively, Athlon believes the defensive unit could be one of the school’s best in the last 10 years.
Sporting News: The News predicts an Armed Forces Bowl appearance for the Cougars but doesn’t provide much else in the way of prognostications. While the BYU defense could be the team’s strength, the Sporting News said there are still some concerns, particularly in the back end. “The Cougars have the potential to be strong up front, but trying to replace three starters in the secoundary could leave them vulnerable to big plays,” The News writes.
Natonal Championship | 150-to-1
BYU will be much improved from last year, when they only managed to win 7 games. However, don’t expect a National Championship out of the Cougars, since their schedule is loaded with difficult road games against Texas, Oregon State, TCU and Hawaii.
Value: C’mon, man.
BEST CASE/WORST CASE
Best Case: Jake Heaps makes strides at QB and shows everybody why he was considered to be the top recruit at his position last year. After splitting its first two games against Ole Miss and Texas, BYU rolls to victories over Utah, UCF and Utah State — the latter two coming in Friday night games. Then, with the first of two difficult stretches behind them, BYU slips up only once over the final seven games en route to a 10-2 season, the school’s fifth in the last six years.
Worst Case: The early portion of the schedule eats BYU alive and they open the year with three straight losses against Ole Miss, Texas and Utah. While the Cougars are able to get things back on track, it’s only momentarily, as the offense fails to produce and the defense comes unglued, particularly in the secondary. Road losses at Oregon State and TCU put their chances at a winning season in jeopardy, but the Cougars finish strong and end up at 7-5 on the year.
I like the Cougars to put a serious scare into the Longhorns in Week 2 as 6.5-point dogs. Texas is an unproven team that struggled at times offensively last season, and I think they’ll spend the majority of the early season trying to find their way behind quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who had a disappointing 2010 campaign. While BYU has offensive concerns of its own, I envision a low-scoring game that should be played in the upper teens or low 20s. I give the edge to Texas in the win-loss column, but expect the Cougars to cover the number.
|Sept. 3||at Mississippi||WIN||1|
|Sept. 10||at Texas||LOSS||0|
|Sept. 17||vs. Utah||SWING GAME||0.5|
|Sept. 23||vs. UCF||WIN||1|
|Sept. 30||vs. Utah State||WIN||1|
|Oct. 8||vs. San Jose State||WIN||1|
|Oct. 15||at Oregon State||SWING GAME||0.5|
|Oct. 22||vs. Idaho||WIN||1|
|Oct. 28||at TCU||SWING GAME||0.5|
|Nov. 12||vs. Idaho||WIN||1|
|Nov. 19||vs. New Mexico State||WIN||1|
|Dec. 3||at Hawaii||SWING GAME||0.5|
|Predicted record: 9-3|